One tinker's curse too many THEATRE

Taming of the Shrew RSC, Stratford
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The Independent Culture
Whose lines are these anyway? It's a question that Josie Lawrence and any contemporary actress would be moved to ask when faced with getting her mouth round the heroine's notorious sermon on wifely submission at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. A Turkish production of the play took a knife to the problem; when Katherine placed her hands on the floor to receive her husband's foot, the gesture was undercut by the fact that she had slit her wrists beforehand. A stark protest, if not the most feminist of solutions.

The speech has been played as a sort of private jest between Katherine and Petruchio in interpretations of the comedy that have stressed the positive way in which the hero offers her an alternative conspiracy to the one she has been excluded from at home as the neglected older daughter. It has been enunciated in robotic brainwashed tones and it has been delivered absolutely straight, both in productions with no ideas on the subject (one of which bafflingly starred Vanessa Redgrave) and in readings of the play (like Jonathan Miller's) which emphasise the historical context.

In the new Stratford Shrew, director Gale Edwards and Josie Lawrence go for the accusingly ironic approach. Here the play begins and ends with Christopher Sly, the drunken Warwickshire tinker, who is seen in the thunderstorm at the start rowing with his wife, rather than with a tavern hostess as in the text. In Edward's version, the whole of what happens between this point and his wife's reappearance at the end is a compensatory macho dream (of becoming a lord who then turns into the cavalier, fortune-hunting hero of the theatricals put on for his benefit) triggered by the marital tiff. A very funny Michael Siberry plays both Sly and Petruchio, with a striking Lawrence doubling as Katherine and the tinker's wife.

The idea here is that Petruchio, struck by the injured, scathing vehemence with which Katherine gives vent to the submission sermon, awakens in the final scene to the nightmare of what he has done. He stumbles towards her, the bank notes from his sordid gamble spilling to the ground. But there is no time for restitution. After a long searching look at him, Lawrence's Katherine vanishes through the curtained proscenium arch at the back. The final image returns us to the storm and to the world of Sly, who is seen on his knees penitently clasping his wife round the waist. Her expression is understandably one of uncertainty.

Though there's a sombreness to the way it resolves, much of the production has a garish excess that sometimes feels less the consequence of good- humoured high spirits than a lack of confidence in the material. When Petruchio arrives for his wedding, he's not just inappropriately dressed, he's decked out like one of the principles in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. "Go to my chamber, put on clothes of mine," says Mark Lockyer's endearing Tranio, which is an odd suggestion given that he himself happens to be wearing a Gary Glitter outfit at the time. Not to be outdone, Grumio (Robin Nedwell) is in a pink tutu.

What stops you from losing patience is the truthful acting of the central relationship. There's a humanising insecurity beneath Siberry's comic swagger, a sensitivity under Lawrence's rebelliousness. They are two oddballs, trapped in defensive patterns of behaviour, and made for each other.

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